Quality Personal Relationships Boost Survival in Women Diagnosed With Early-Stage Breast Cancer

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If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, you know the support of your close friends and relatives as you move through the diagnosis, treatment, and recovery process is invaluable. Research has shown that women with large social networks – including spouses/partners, relatives, friends, religious and social ties, and community ties through volunteering or work – have better breast cancer survival.

Now a study suggests that the quality of a woman’s social networks seems to be just as important as the size of the social networks in predicting breast cancer survival.

The study was published online on Nov. 10, 2012 by Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. Read the abstract of “Social networks, social support, and burden in relationships, and mortality after breast cancer diagnosis in the Life After Breast Cancer Epidemiology (LACE) Study.”

The LACE (Life After Cancer Epidemiology) study looked at 2,264 women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer between 1997 and 2000. The women answered questions about their social networks, including:

  • whether they had a spouse or intimate partner
  • religious and social ties
  • whether they volunteered
  • how much time they spent socializing with friends
  • how many first-degree female relatives they spent time with (mother, sister, daughter)
  • how much social support they had
  • whether or not they had a caregiver or were a caregiver

Based on the answers to these questions, the researchers categorized the women as:

  • socially isolated (few social ties)
  • moderately socially integrated
  • very socially integrated (many social ties)

The women then rated the quality of their relationships using a five-point scale. The women were asked to rank things such as:

  • My family has accepted my illness.
  • Family communication about my illness is poor.
  • I feel distant from my friends.

Based on these survey results, the women also were categorized as having high or low levels of social support.

The researchers found an association between social support levels and the risk of dying from breast cancer:

  • Women with small social networks AND low levels of support were 61% more likely to die from breast cancer or another cause than women with small social networks and high levels of support.

Women with small social networks and high levels of support had the same risk of dying as women with large social networks.

The researchers also found that if a woman’s family relationships weren’t very supportive, relationships made through the community or religious organizations were extremely important to survival.

The results suggest that the quality of a woman’s relationships, rather than just the size of her social networks, can help improve survival.

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s important to find one (or more) people with whom you can discuss your most intense concerns as well as your hopes. Your spouse, life partner, or other relative or friend may play this role. If they can’t, consider going outside your usual circle of family and friends to find people you can talk to and who will support you. These people may be:

  • a member of a religious organization
  • a social worker
  • a psychologist or counselor
  • a doctor or nurse
  • another person with breast cancer
  • another cancer survivor

It really doesn’t matter who your support people are or how many of them there are. What’s important is that you have someone who supports you and allows you to speak openly. Some hospitals and cancer centers offer mentoring programs that match people who are newly diagnosed with other people who have already been through treatment. Another option is a breast cancer support group, where you can meet many other people who know exactly what you’re going through. The Breastcancer.org Discussion Boards are active day and night. Registered members live around the world and there are many different topic areas that may interest and help you.

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